27 January 2022
In 2021, a new company, DARE (Datametrics Research and Information Centre Sdn Bhd) emerged in Malaysia pushing harm reduction in the media and making a case to “embrace” e-cigarettes. Located in upmarket Kuala Lumpur, it claims to be a think tank that performs “data gathering, strategic analysis and advocacy platform for businesses and industries.” It was incorporated in March 2021..
DARE’s website shows it has only two publications, both favorable to the tobacco industry. Its report on e-cigarettes makes a case for Malaysia to “embrace harm reduction” and “embrace vaping”, while its report on illicit trade’s, with a cover reminiscent of the chevron on a pack of Marlboro, peddles industry argument that illicit trade is linked to tax increase.
DARE’s Managing Director has no known expertise in public health, tobacco nor tobacco control. He mouths industry rhetoric of “sensible regulation”, that vaping can be a powerful tool to reduce smoking prevalence and that the public want it.
DARE’s two directors, also run another marketing research company, Green Zebras, which DARE names as their survey and research partner. While Green Zebras has not disclosed the sponsor of its report and infographics on vaping, BAT has been linked to its survey in Malaysia. BAT Malaysia has quoted data from the Green Zebras’ findings in its annual report.
Green Zebras promoted its 2019 survey in the media and also commented that high taxes on tobacco forces smokers to turn to illicit trade. Green Zebras provides pro-industry data to support legalizing e-cigarettes which is then referred to by pro-vaping groups in their media statements. This creates the conducive environment needed for tobacco companies to launch and promote their new products.
BAT launched its heated tobacco product (HTP) glo in Malaysia in 2019. HTPs are regulated by the Control of Tobacco Products Regulation and must carry pictorial health warnings but online adverts for glo show the product without health warnings such as those available through shopee.com.my. Glo is promoted online despite a ban on tobacco advertising and promotions in Malaysia.
Recently, BAT was exposed by the Daily Beast as the driving force behind the World Vapers’ Alliance – a pro-vaping front group masquerading as a grassroots initiative of anti-smoking advocates. BAT had used the World Vapers’ Alliance to mobilize individuals to lobby government officials to roll back regulations on tobacco products such as bans on flavored products, health warnings and increased taxes. According to the investigation, BAT had gone to great lengths to conceal its involvement with the World Vapers’ Alliance.
The timing of the emergence of DARE is significant because evidence on the harms of vaping is mounting and the public health community’s calls to ban ENDS and HTPs are intensifying. In July 2021, the WHO released a new report on the threats to health posed by new nicotine and tobacco products. According to WHO, there are about 16 000 flavours available in some markets, (many of them appealing to children), 32 countries have banned the sale of ENDS/HTPs, and these new products should be addressed in comprehensive tobacco control measures.
Burgeoning illicit trade is a common argument the tobacco industry uses to oppose stringent tobacco control measure. Over the years, various groups (CMTM, ITIC, Oxford Economics, IDEAS) have provided data to back the tobacco industry’s appeal to the Malaysian government not to increase tax substantially. While tobacco industry sponsorship of their research is evident, DARE has not declared who sponsored its research on illicit trade.
In October 2021, the Malaysian government announced there will be no tax increase on cigarettes in the 2022 budget – for the sixth year straight – but that ENDS will be taxed. This decision was welcomed by BAT which stated its the right move towards tobacco harm reduction in Malaysia.
Actually this is the wrong move for public health as it will probably see the proliferation of numerous ENDS and HTPs, offering thousands of flavors, easy access to youth and de-classification of nicotine as a poison in the Poison Act 1952.
Unfortunately, Malaysia has not utilized Article 5.3 guidelines of the WHO FCTC which empowers the government to protect their public health policies from commercial and other vested interests. Implementing the guidelines will enable the government to identify who represents the tobacco industry, require tobacco companies to provide information on their lobbying and marketing expenditure and be transparent when interacting with the industry.